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Sheepish over lack of exam scapegoats

The results of an inquiry into missing art work left much to be desired, reports John Walshe. Niamh Bhreathnach, the Irish education minister, has announced a series of measures aimed at restoring public confidence in the state's exams system following some embarrassing gaffes.

Most recently, engineering project work destined for her ministry fell off a lorry and almost rolled into a bog. More serious, however, were the 50 pieces of art work that went missing last year and are now the subject of a major investigation by consultants Price Waterhouse.

The Price Waterhouse report was finally presented last week to members of both Houses of Parliament but was not officially published. This was at the insistence of the consultants who feared they would be embroiled in legal action by individuals who could be identified in the report.

This condition infuriated trade unions who had been promised copies of the report in advance and they boycotted a planned briefing meeting in the ministry as a protest. Journalists were none too happy either and had to hang around the lobby of the Oireachtas (Parliament) hoping to cadge a copy from some passing parliamentarian.

The consultants concluded that there was no single cause for what went wrong and instead attributed it to a succession of human, procedural and computer errors.

"Misunderstandings and failed communications" were partly to blame for the fact that the appeals procedure failed to spot that something was seriously wrong. A number of key documents were missing which might have explained what happened, but the consultants concluded that there was no evidence of concealment or destruction of these documents.

The consultants made 100 detailed recommendations for improvement and some have already been implemented by the minister for this year's state exams.

To add to the minister's woes, an error appeared in this year's maths paper in the Leaving Certificate in which students were asked about a triangle with 184 degrees.

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